Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Detroit officially joins the salvage economy


In Dark Age America: The End of the Old Order, Greer wrote about the usefulness of waste in his model of catabolic collapse.*
As I pointed out in a paper published online back in 2005—a PDF is available here—the process that drives the collapse of civilizations has a surprisingly simple basis: the mismatch between the maintenance costs of capital and the resources that are available to meet those costs. Capital here is meant in the broadest sense of the word, and includes everything in which a civilizations invests its wealth: buildings, roads, imperial expansion, urban infrastructure, information resources, trained personnel, or what have you. Capital of every kind has to be maintained, and as a civilization adds to its stock of capital, the costs of maintenance rise steadily, until the burden they place on the civilization’s available resources can’t be supported any longer.

The only way to resolve that conflict is to allow some of the capital to be converted to waste, so that its maintenance costs drop to zero and any useful resources locked up in the capital can be put to other uses.
Detroit has long been neglecting the manufactured capital of its infrastructure because it has unable to maintain it, but I don't recall it actively converting the resources locked up in its neglected and obselete infrastructure--until now.  Take it away, Detroit Free Press: Detroit to make $25M from scrapping its own copper.
Detroit is turning to a source to make money post-bankruptcy: Its own supplies of copper.

The city is privatizing and decommissioning its electricity delivery services, and over the next six years expects to make at least $25 million from the sale of copper in underground and overhead electricity lines, a top financial consultant to the city testified this morning in Detroit's bankruptcy proceedings.
Note the "at least."  The same consultant thought that up to 40 million dollars could be realized from recycling all the copper that the city no longer needs.  No wonder Detroit is thinking about doing this.

Follow over the jump for more on Detroit officially joining the salvage economy.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

CNN on the San Joaquin, America's most endangered river


Despite my promise at the end of Ebola news from campuses on the campaign trail and Discovery News, my readers will have to continue to "stay tuned for a delayed entertainment entry."  Tonight's entry is instead an exercise in blogging as professional development, a series of videos from CNN that I'm posting to my blog so that I can use them in this week and next.  What's the topic?  A 417-mile trip down the San Joaquin, the 'Apocalypse River.'  John Sutter writes, "I spent three weeks trying to kayak (and walk) down the “most endangered” river in America, California’s San Joaquin; I quickly learned why no one does that."
The San Joaquin is a river that would flip my boat, steal my camera, throw me into trees, take my food, tweak my muscles, acquaint me with heat exhaustion, scare the s--- out of me, trap me in the mud and leave me hiking for three days across a desert.

It even fertilized me in the middle of the night.

And that’s just the me-complaining part.

Far worse, it also deforms birds (or did, in the 1980s), taints taps, steals jobs, causes the ground to sink irreversibly, kills fish, destroys wetlands -- and harbors shady people with semi-automatic weapons.

Still, it’s somehow also a river that supports a valley that grows 40% of the nation’s fruits and some vegetables as well as more than 80% of the world’s almonds. It’s a hugely important river, but one that’s been engineered almost to death.
The rest is a great article that all of my readers should also read, but I'm interested in the videos for my classes, beginning with this one, Opinion: The 'most endangered' river.

The San Joaquin river is on life support. John D. Sutter looks at the extreme measures taken to keep the river flowing.
Follow over the jump for the rest of the videos from CNN about Sutter and what he found out in his voyage/trek down the San Joaquin River.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Ebola news from campuses on the campaign trail and Discovery News


I ended Discovery News on high-fructose corn syrup with a half-hearted promise.
That would be after an Ebola update, if I'm up for it.  Stay tuned.  Even I don't know what I'm doing next!
I wasn't up for an Ebola update last week.  Instead of following up on Michigan prepares for Ebola after Dallas patient dies, I posted Happy Canadian Thanksgiving!  It paid off, as that entry got 354 page views in 24 hours.  Today, I don't have the excuse of a holiday to avoid an update, plus I have a fair amount of material.

I begin with Northern Illinois University, which asks Ebola: Should we worry?
NIU professor: Money spent to protect U.S. from Ebola better spent in Africa

So, is there reason for concern in this country? Yes and no, say two NIU biologists and a professor of public health.

"We maybe should worry," says Neil Blackstone, a professor in the NIU Department of Biological Sciences whose field of interest is evolutionary biology.

"We don't yet have a grasp of how it got to West Africa, and the concern is that it's evolving. It's evolving to be a better human parasite than it has been, perhaps less deadly but more transmittable," Blackstone adds. "If it infects 1,000 and kills them all, that's one thing. But if it infects 1 million people and kills 10 percent of them - 100,000 - that's another."

Barrie Bode, chair of the department, similarly urges caution.

“The likelihood that we could see a pandemic here is extremely remote, but vigilance is probably advisable right now. We do have a great deal more resources here and protocols that are in place. We can easily isolate the virus and prevent its spread here,” says Bode, who studies the biology of cancer.

“In these Third World countries, it’s much more difficult because they don’t have the resources,” he adds, “and viruses are notorious for mutating. Because the human-to-human transmission rate has been so high, it gives the virus more opportunity to evolve with each subsequent infection.”

Bode and Blackstone are quick to point out that neither is an expert in infectious disease or Ebola itself. They can offer scientifically literate interpretations of the emerging epidemic, however, and are following the news closely.

Sarah Geiger, assistant professor of public health in the NIU School of Nursing and Health Studies, agrees that the possibility of a widespread Ebola outbreak in the United States remains remote.

Geiger traces some of the anxiety to modern advances in outbreak containment. “Public Health Preparedness as a sub-field has grown substantially in terms of workforce as well as funding dollars since the events of Sept. 11,” she says, “so I think as a nation we’re more aware of the value of preparedness, which can unfortunately also lead to unreasonable fear.”

However, “I do think that parts of Africa will ultimately be devastated by the virus,” Geiger says.
As I wrote in the previous update...
Once again, the message from the authorities is "Don't Panic."  One of these days I should post the cover of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in response to these pronouncements.
One of these days has arrived.


Follow over the jump for more Ebola stories.

Discovery News on high-fructose corn syrup


I told my readers to "Stay tuned for the Sunday entertainment entry" at the end of Siding Spring and other Mars news, but that's not going to happen, at least not tonight.  Instead, I'm going to cop out and follow up to Corn questions from 'Food, Inc.' worksheet, which is at least about a movie I show my students, with this video from Discovery News: Is High Fructose Corn Syrup Really That Bad For You?

Everyone knows that high fructose corn syrup is bad for you, but how bad is it? And why is it bad for you? Trace is here to talk about artificial sweeteners.
I might have a proper entertainment entry tomorrow night.  If so, it's about equally likely that I'll tackle Gamergate, post about college bands doing zombie marching band shows, or serve up a bunch of entertainment leftovers from the past month's Overnight News Digests.  That would be after an Ebola update, if I'm up for it.  Stay tuned.  Even I don't know what I'm doing next!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Siding Spring and other Mars news


Today, Comet Siding Spring flies by Mars.  Here are the stories about the event that I included in the past two Overnight News Digests on Daily Kos.

JPL/NASA: Comet Siding Spring: A Close Encounter with Mars

Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring will make a very close flyby of Mars on Oct. 19, 2014. Passing at a distance of only 87,000 miles (by comparison that's little more than 1/3 the distance between Earth and our moon), it’ll be a near miss of the Red Planet. Find out how NASA’s Mars orbiters will evade the onslaught of dust particles from the comet.
Space.com via LiveScience: Comet's Mars Flyby Sunday Has Scientists Abuzz
By Mike Wall, Senior Writer
October 17, 2014 11:06am ET
A comet's close shave with Mars this weekend could reveal some key insights about the Red Planet and the solar system's early days, researchers say.

Comet Siding Spring will zoom within 87,000 miles (139,500 kilometers) of Mars at 2:27 p.m. EDT (1827 GMT) on Sunday (Oct. 19). Scientists will observe the flyby using the fleet of spacecraft at Mars, studying the comet and any effects its particles have on the planet's thin atmosphere.

"On Oct. 19, we're going to observe an event that happens maybe once every million years," Jim Green, director of NASA's planetary science division, said in a news conference earlier this month. "This is an absolutely spectacular event."
Follow over the jump for the rest of the Mars news since MAVEN at Mars from the University of Colorado, including a video and story about MAVEN.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Corn questions from 'Food, Inc.' worksheet


I concluded Corn for fuel, a story I tell my students with a program note that my students who read this blog will appreciate.
On the subject of corn, I showed "Food, Inc." to my students this week.  Stay tuned for a post about the questions about corn from my worksheet for that movie.
Follow over the jump for the questions about corn from my worksheet for Food, Inc. as well as answers to them.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Corn for fuel, a story I tell my students

I opened Biofuel crops can be good for the environment and other biofuels research with my opinion of using corn for fuel.
Normally, I'm skeptical about biofuels, but that's primarily because the main biofuel in the U.S. is corn ethanol, which I have characterized for years as an energy independence strategy, not a sustainability strategy.  It doesn't help that pretty much all the increased corn production during the past decade has gone into gas tanks.
Here's an updated version of the graph I show my students that displays how much corn goes to each purpose, including how all the growth in the crop and then some has gone into our gas tanks.


The point I make is even more clear in this graph.


The other point I make about corn ethanol is about its wastefulness.
In one of the first entries on this blog, I described "converting corn into ethanol" as "a big energy loser."
This is the figure from The Oil Drum I show my students to support my statement.


Only in the counties shaded in solid gray did corn ethanol yield more energy than it took to produce it.  In all the rest, it was a net energy loser.

Both of the above are why I think using corn grain for for ethanol fuel is a bad idea and why I am enthused about growing other crops with uses that don't compete for food and feed for biofuels.

On the subject of corn, I showed "Food, Inc." to my students this week.  Stay tuned for a post about the questions about corn from my worksheet for that movie.

Biofuel crops can be good for the environment and other biofuels research


Normally, I'm skeptical about biofuels, but that's primarily because the main biofuel in the U.S. is corn ethanol, which I have characterized for years as an energy indepence strategy, not a sustainability strategy.  It doesn't help that pretty much all the increased corn production during the past decade has gone into gas tanks.  In one of the first entries on this blog, I described "converting corn into ethanol" as "a big energy loser."  On the other hand, I followed that by writing that it would be "less of a loser if ethanol comes from cellulose in the stalks and leaves instead of the grain, as cellulosic ethanol requires less fertilizer than grain ethanol."

I'd be even more optimistic if the enthanol and other biofuels came from something other than corn.  Fortunately, two stories I included in last week's Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday (Nobel Prizes 2014) on Daily Kos gave me even more reason for optimism, as they show the biofuel crops can be good for the environment even if they aren't burned for fuel.

First, Liz Ahlberg, writing for the University of Illinois, reported Bioenergy crops could store more carbon in soil.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — In addition to providing renewable energy, grass crops like switchgrass and miscanthus could store some of the carbon they pull from the atmosphere in the soil, according to a new study by University of Illinois researchers.

The study compared soil dynamics – the ratio of carbon to nitrogen and microbial activity – of bioenergy crops with that of a standard corn-corn-soybean rotation. They found that in bioenergy crops, a certain threshold of plant matter left in the field after harvest lets much more carbon accumulate in the soil.

Led by civil and environmental engineering professor Praveen Kumar, the researchers published their findings in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.
Next, Kelly April Tyrell, writing for the University of Wisconsin passed along the good news about Balancing birds and biofuels: Grasslands support more species than cornfields.
In Wisconsin, bioenergy is for the birds. Really.

In a study published today in the journal PLOS ONE, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) scientists examined whether corn and perennial grassland fields in southern Wisconsin could provide both biomass for bioenergy production and bountiful bird habitat.

The research team found that where there are grasslands, there are birds. Grass-and-wildflower-dominated fields supported more than three times as many bird species as cornfields, including 10 imperiled species found only in the grasslands. These grassland fields can also produce ample biomass for renewable fuels.

Monica Turner, UW-Madison professor of zoology, and study lead author Peter Blank, a postdoctoral researcher in her lab, hope the findings help drive decisions that benefit both birds and biofuels, too, by providing information for land managers, farmers, conservationists and policy makers as the bioenergy industry ramps up, particularly in Wisconsin and the central U.S.
Both of those are good news and make me more favorably disposed to (non-corn) biofuels.

Follow over the jump for the biofuel news from Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday (Ebola in the U.S.).

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Gas below $3.00 arrives in my neighborhood while oil falls


I concluded Neighborhood stations at last year's lows already by writing "gasoline below $3.00 a the local pump, here we come."  It arrived in my vicinity yesterday (today as I type this), when I saw two of the stations down the street at $2.99.  The third was at $3.03.  I don't expect that will last very long.  Meanwhile, the corner station was in the middle of retreating from a charge into No Man's Land.  Yesterday, it raised its price to $3.25 while the rest of the outlets held steady at $3.09.  I'm sure it will eventually match the other three, although it might take all week.  Even so, these are already the lowest gas prices I've recorded in the history of this blog so far.

The lower gas prices have been making news in Detroit since WXYZ noticed $3.00 gas.  WXYZ followed up on that report by asking How low will gas prices go?


Follow over the jump for a look at the local and national price environment and the commodities markets to see what they foretell, as well as what is behind the price drop.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Troy Transit Center opens


A story I've been following since 2011 has come to a happy conclusion; the Troy Transit Center opened.


That was the WXYZ preview.  The Detroit News covered the actual opening in Ceremony celebrates Troy Transit Center opening.
More than 200 people witnessed the ribbon-cutting for the new Troy Transit Center Tuesday, including Brian Smiatacz, 36, who had two kids in tow.

Four-year-old Adam, and Grace, 2, came outfitted with train engineer hats.

"They've been waiting for a year for this to open," Smiatacz said. "We were watching it get built. It took a long time for this to happen."
I've been waiting longer than that.  First, it was voted down by Troy's then Tea Party City Council in 2011.  This embroiled then-Mayor Janice Daniels in a scandal, one that led to a recall effort that was successful.*  As for the transit center, it got a second chance and was finally approved.  It faced a final hurdle, as the ownership of the land it stood on was in doubt.  I'm glad that was settled so the Troy Transit Center finally opened.

Now I can turn my attention to the construction of the M1 streetcar, the other project that got a second chance.  Here's to that story having as happy a conclusion as the transit center!

*I was rooting for the recall from the start.  I thought Daniels was trouble from the very beginning.